Wednesday 24 April 2013

Sex for sale - or not

Who do you think should choose which books we can buy? Children's writers are used to the frustration of trying to satisfy the gatekeepers that sit between writer and reader - the parents, teachers, librarians and school boards (especially school boards) that decide whether books can ever reach the hands of children. The views, or anticipated views, of gatekeepers influence publishers' decisions about what to publish and what can be included in a book.

But what about adult publishing? Surely adults should be free to choose their own reading matter without gatekeepers intervening? As long as the content of a book is legal (so not deemed obscene, blasphemous, libellous or anything else against the law), we can buy it, right? Wrong. Readers and writers are increasingly at the mercy of self-appointed moral guardians, particularly Apple and Amazon - those very organisations that have been in trouble for exploiting workers and avoiding taxes. Those moral guardians.

In a move that has largely slipped under the radar, Amazon has dropped a lot of books with adult (ie sexual) content from search results. As far as I'm aware, they haven't dropped violent content - so you can still find American Psycho but not Fifty Shades of Grey. I know which book I consider to be more offensive, and it's not Fifty Shades. But that's irrelevant - neither book has illegal content, so it should be available to people who want it.

It's not that Amazon won't sell adult books - but that they won't show up in general search results. You need to know the title you want, then you can buy it. How often do people who buy erotica search by title? I don't know, but reports from publishers of erotica suggest not many as this has hit their business hard. Of course. The rise of Amazon, and then ebooks, saw a boom in sales of erotica. People who were embarrassed to buy erotica in a public bookshop - always assuming they could find it - could buy it privately online and it would come in a brown box that just said 'Amazon' all over it. And then they could buy it on their Kindle or KindleClone and no one could see they were reading it.

Not one to take rumour at its word, I searched Amazon for 'erotica'. 120,000 hits, near enough, in both UK and US. It sounds like a lot, but it's fewer than I would have expected. And 'erotica' is not exactly a general search. A lot of self-published steamy novels. In the UK, the second hit was a book by Goethe. Yes, that Goethe - the German author of Faust who's been dead more than 200 years. *Second* in erotica. I suppose Amazon filters results by my known preferences, and I've bought more books by dead Germans than erotica, but even so... Fifty Shades didn't feature on the first page in either or .com. I searched for 'whipping' and got a recipe book, a few saucy Kindle offerings, a book about politics (UK use of the term 'whip' to mean pushing politicians to vote along party lines) and, number 1, an academic book on scapegoating of transsexual women. God knows what this is doing to my Amazon profile.

As The Telegraph pointed out, whatever you think of Amazon trying to invade the moral high ground, that's just a stupid business decision. Amazon is throwing away sales of a book people can - and will - buy in the supermarket.

But I don't care if Amazon loses business - I care deeply that publishers and writers can't get their legal content out to readers who want it unless the reader knows the title in advance. How are readers going to find out about books they haven't heard of? They might have favourite writers, they might have friends who make recommendations, but a lot now rely on the links Amazon makes for them.

Of course, Amazon has encouraged self-publishing through Kindle and that's a route many writers of erotica have taken. No doubt many of those erotic novels are not very good, but Amazon isn't judging on the quality of the writing - it's just saying 'No sex, please, we're American'. There are writers and publishers who have businesses built around the model Amazon pushed at them who are now having their books dropped from searches and, in some cases, dropped from Amazon completely. Barnes and Noble also have filters, but not as harsh, it seems. As for Apple - they've been known to be highly prudish about what they will allow on iTunes for ages, but that squeaky-clean, teen-puppy look is part of Apple's public image (however disingenuous) so it's less surprising.

Amazon is a commercial organisation. It is free to sell or not sell what it likes, right? John Lewis doesn't sell porn or sex toys and no one complains about that. The differences are transparency and market share. If you go in to John Lewis and ask where the sex toys are, they will tell you politely that they don't sell them and they might even direct you somewhere else that does sell them.

Amazon doesn't tell readers that it's operating a filter and that there might be more books that match their search which are not displayed. And, worse, it doesn't tell publishers and authors when their books have been marked for filtering. This means they can't appeal if they think the filter has been wrongly applied, and it means they don't know that they should just take their book elsewhere. Self-published authors can at least see their sales figures fall off a cliff and might guess, but those who have to wait for royalty statements to see sales can lose up to 9 months' income before they even have a clue.

Amazon's monopolistic position in the market means it can dictate how writers make their living (and which writers can make a living) and what adults can read. Writers and publishers who can't sell through Amazon will really struggle to make a success of their work. That can't be right. Who are Amazon to tell people what to write and what to read? It's not as though they have a great reputation for moral behaviour themselves.

I don't write, buy or read erotica. I have no personal interest to disclose. But I'm a writer and a reader and want my books and those by others to be freely available - or at least to be told when they are not. Is that unreasonable?


  1. How strange! I don't understand the decision behind this. Surely *Amazon* itself is losing massive amounts of money?

  2. Yes, it is. I can only guess that it thinks it will attract more prudish American consumers who won't need to fear stumbling over a cover showing a whip or skimpily-clad woman, or who will buy from Amazon because they are obviously a good, clean-living company upholding Christian values. Ahem.

  3. I wouldn't call erotica and porn 'adult' books. As an adult, I resent that.

    And it's Amazon's business, so they get to make the rules. If I were Jeff Bezos, I'd be a little fed up with people telling me what to do, one way and another.

  4. Well, it's not really my term, Lexi - it's the established label. Meaning, suitable for adults rather than children. Not all adults have to like or buy it (I don't either), but it's really a 'not-for-children' label.

    I think that if you have gone out of your way to destroy all competing outlets, as Amazon has, it is then very damaging to the publishing industry if you start outlawing certain types of book - especially if you don't make it clear you are doing it so the publishers can rapidly tear up their restrictive agreement with Amazon and go elsewhere. Monopolies *don't* get to make the rules in most businesses; there is legislation to restrict their power. Today they don't like erotica; maybe next year they won't like books that are about Arabs, or gay issues, or climate change... It would be nice to know what they are filtering.

  5. Amazon is giving the publishing industry a hard time by doing a much, much better job than they did. Had the then Big Six not spent decades resting on their laurels, they could have made a fortune out of digital and not left it to a talented newcomer to race to the top. If they are getting damaged, it's because of their own slackness and complacency.

    Amazon is so successful because it has lots of good ideas, and puts the customer first. If it ceases to do this, it in turn will be overtaken. That's how a free market works.

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  7. Amazon is also so successful because it doesn't pay taxes...